It was the second day of my trip to Israel when our minibus drove down a tree lined street in Haifa that has come to be known as “Survivors’ Street.” We stopped in front of a row of buildings and were greeted by members of Yad Ezer La-Haver (Helping Hand to A Friend)—known as the “Warm House”—a collection of attached and detached buildings that house facilities for those who have almost been forgotten—the almost 200,000 Holocaust survivors living in Israel today.
Yad Ezer La-Haver foundation was founded in the year 2001. It was a time when the social and economic situation in the country was difficult. Founded as a soup kitchen, and a place for needy families and children at risk, today it runs as a “Warm Home” for Holocaust survivors as well.
The project was initiated by Shimon Sabag, whose mother was a Holocaust survivor. He began to notice an increasing number of elderly survivors showing up for free meals at his soup kitchen and realized something more needed to be done. So he began researching facilities to house and attend to survivors’ basic needs. “Did you know that only 54 percent of adults around the world have heard about the Holocaust; and that most young people around the world have not heard about the Holocaust?” asked Sabag.
And in Israel, more than a quarter of all Holocaust survivors live in extreme poverty. As reported in The Daily Mail, according to a 2015 study by the Foundation for the Benefit of Holocaust Victims in Israel, “30 percent of the country’s 189,000 survivors have forgone buying food products over the previous year out of concern for money, 25 percent have not bought the relevant medicines they need, and around 27 percent can’t afford to heat their homes during the winter months.”
While various reforms in recent years have led to a significant improvement in the lives of Holocaust survivors, 60,000 of them still can’t afford food, medical care or heating. Until recently, Holocaust survivors who had arrived in Israel by 1953 were automatically entitled to a small monthly pension from the government; but those who arrived after 1953 did not enjoy such terms. In 2014, the government approved legislation, providing a budget of approximately $1.2 billion over the course of five years and free medication for survivors. It allocated equal treatment to survivors who had immigrated to Israel after 1953—but only if they had been in concentration camps or ghettos. Many fell through the cracks and still live at or below the poverty line.
In 2007, Sabag and Yad Ezer La-Haver began buying or renting all the buildings on a street in Haifa and in 2010, purchased a four-story building. It was renovated and designed to provide the residents with subsidized housing, as well as food, and medical care free of charge; doctors and nurses from area hospitals volunteered to cover their health needs on an around-the-clock basis. The kitchen and dining area was designed to feed additional local Holocaust survivors on a daily basis. More than 2,000 applicants, mostly survivors of Nazi death camps in Poland and Germany, signed up for a waiting list for the new facility at that time. However, the facility was able to accept only an initial 50, followed by up to 30.
Since then, other buildings have been purchased to provide housing. We toured one of them, which had been under construction for seven months. When I asked Amit Eshed, the social worker of Warm House, why it took so long to complete these modest apartments, she said that they had run out of money.
The Home is unique in many ways. Its purpose has evolved from merely supplying lodging, to providing a community in the real sense of the word. Local survivors enjoy a warm welcome and are able to participate in various celebrations, activities and services.
Amit says her greatest challenge “to get them to smile every day, by providing them with warmth, love and peace; to help them deal with difficult memories and nightmares that come back and overwhelm them.”
On March 7, 2015, dozens of Holocaust survivors celebrated a belated B’nei Mitzvah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. This event was initiated and organized by Yad Ezer La-Haver for the benefit of the survivors, because most were denied that opportunity in their youth by the Nazis.
Sabag commented, “Sadly memories about the Holocaust just disappear. For me these memories are not just some abstract memories, these are personal memories of people who survived in the Holocaust, people who I help every day.”
As a non-government organization, Yad Ezer La-Haver depends on donations from organizations and individuals. For more information visit their website where you can learn more and make donations: www.yadezer.org.
Florence L. Dann, a fifth year rabbinical student at the Academy for Jewish Religion in LA, has been a contributing writer to Jlife since 2004.